Internet Explorer 4.0, while offering a host of new features and capabilities was a mess. The base install was over 12 MB big (over 25 MB for a full install!), giving modem users a virtual headache. IE 5.0 is more componentized and, in a bid to stay ahead of the feds should things turn disastrous in court, can be broken down into small enough chunks so that users can install only the system file updates if needed. The problem with Internet Explorer, of course, is that Microsoft is using the product to update key system files; In IE 4.0 a Windows NT Server administrator had to install a Web browser (think about this) to get the latest version of Microsoft's Web server to work. This is clearly unacceptable, and IE 5.0 appears to fix the problem.
Of course, in Windows NT 5.0, the point
is moot: The system files, browser files, and other assorted updates will
simply ship with the system. Let's take a look at what you get.
Browsing the Web with Internet Explorer 5.0
From the user's standpoint, Internet Explorer 5.0 is just like Internet Explorer 4.0 with only a few minor differences. Microsoft is supporting numerous new Web technologies in IE 5.0, so some pages may not render properly due to coding mistakes or the simple fact that this is still an early beta. Overall, the performance of IE 5.0 is excellent and virtually indistinguishable from IE 4.0, with one exception: For some reason, some pages will not load properly (Picture) the first time you hit them and you get a "page not found" message from the browser. If you reload the page, it loads fine the second time. This probably happens 2-3 times a day, enough to be annoying, but again, it's seemingly related to its status as a beta product.
One notable enhancement in IE 5.0 is it's new HTML-based "Organize Favorites" dialog (Picture). This option finally makes it easy to, yes, organize your Favorites, including a simple and logical way to rename Favorites, move them to differnet folders, and the like. This is a huge improvement over IE 4.0. Also improved is the toolbar, which is now completely customizable (again, finally!). The problem here (Picture), as in IE 4.0, is that changes to the IE 5.0 Web browser's toolbar affect My Computer/Windows Explorer windows as well. For example, if you choose to display the IE 5.0 toolbar using small icons, your My Computer/Windows Explorer windows will use small icons too. This is a shame: If I could, I'd use small icons in My Computer and large icons in the Web browser, but there's no way to make that work right now.
In many ways, IE 5.0 is a bit of a
let-down, if only because it doesn't seem to visually add much to the IE
4.0 experience. Whether this will change before the final release is
unknown, but it's worth remembering that most of the changes to IE 5.0
come under the hood, and will be appreciated by developers and system
administrators, not by users looking for something different. On that
note, from the user's perspective, IE 4.0 was the best browser around, so
there's little need to mess with a good thing. IE 5.0 is every bit as
good as IE 4.0 and then some.
Because of the current state of the Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2 installer, which doesn't allow you to perform a custom install, I was given a default collection of IE 5.0-related tools. These include:
The Outlook Bar issue is simple: It's not there. You can still access the Folder Bar and Folder List, but these are unacceptable: The Outlook Bar in Outlook Express 4.0 provided a quick, small-footprint way to access your news and mail accounts. It's disappearance in OE 5.0 is a sore spot. On a side note, the layout options have moved from the more-logical View menu to Tools-->Options (Picture). You have to love change for change's sake. The new way is not better, and it is not logical. It is, however, different, and that's aggravating.
Anyway, the change from a dialog-based "View groups" (IE 4.0) to the full window view in IE 5.0 is even more aggravating. This is tied to the way I view newsgroups: I view only the unread messages and I automatically mark all messags as read when I leave a group. In IE 4.0, I could be in a group reading messages, check to see if there are any new groups (using the convenient dialog), and then go right back to reading messages. In IE 5.0, attempting to access the list of available groups for the current news server switches the main view from the current group to the list of messages, which, of course, marks all the messages in that group as read. Even if I haven't read them yet.
And you know, I haven't gotten used to it yet. I still manage to do this over and over again. Anyway, I've sent in a complaint about this, so hopefully we'll see some progress before the final release.
As for the other components, none have
changed much since IE 4.0, except of course Windows Media Player (Picture),
which is a wonderful improvement over the old version. Microsoft is
offering this player for free from its Web site to Windows 9x and NT 4.0
users as well: I highly recommend it. If you're a follower of WinInfo,
you know that this is the player that got Microsoft into trouble with
Windows NT 5.0 makes the Web browser integration in Windows 98 look like a sad joke: Much of the system is now rendered in IE 5.0-based HTML pages, including the Add/Remove Programs Control Panel applet and the new Search program. Windows NT 5.0 also includes, of course, the components from Windows 98 that were already HTML-based, such as the Active Desktop, Explorer windows, Windows Update, and the Help system. By changing more and more of the system over to HTML, a more consistent interface is presented to the user.
The following HTML system components are now available in Windows NT 5.0 Beta 2:
Then why do the new developer features in IE 5.0 leave me so cold?
Despite my belief that Microsoft's extensions to HTML, scripting, XML, and the like are overwhelmingly superior to anything else that's out there, I firmly believe in the ideals of Web standards. For example, during the development of IE 4.0, Microsoft presented most of its pending changes to these technologies to the W3C, the body responsible for creating and maintaining Web standards, and offered them up for inclusion in future standards. This way, it seemed, the W3C would eventually include most of these technologies in future specifications and, as a Web developer, I could pretty much rely on the fact that the rest of the market (i.e. Netscape) would follow along and include support for these technologies in their own browsers.
Needless to say, this hasn't happened. So, while I appreciate--and am amazed by--some of the new Web technologies Microsoft has created, I'm not going to be able to use most of them because I must, as a Web developer, support the whole market, not just the minority using Internet Explorer. Now, as a caveat, I should say that much of the Web technology Microsoft has created is server-based, and I don't have a problem using that because I'm using IIS on the server-side, but the client-side stuff, specifically the IE 4.0 and IE 5.0-specific technology, well, it will just go unused for the most part.
It's harder, for example, to support IE 5.0 technologies on a Web page while maintaining backwards compatibility with older browsers than it is to simply create a page that will work with any browser. And even though I might be able to agree that some of these technologies would be beneficial to the user, I can't implement them until I'm sure that enough people are using IE 4.0/5.0. And right now, that simply isn't the case. OK, there are exceptions: If you're working on an intranet site and you're sure that all of your users are going to browsing with IE 5.0, go nuts. Otherwise, I can't recommend using almost any of these technologies, simply because the time and expense of learning them is far too great. It's just not worth it.
Now that I've completely turned you off to these technologies, let's take a look at them. The advances Microsoft has made really are pretty impressive, as I've said. Perhaps by the time NT 5.0 ships, my cross-browser compatibility issues will be moot, or Microsoft may create tools (such as FrontPage 2000) that handle the browser issues automatically.
In many ways, Microsoft's "abuse" of Web technologies was done to specifically enhance the NT 5.0 user experience, and it's pretty hard to complain about that. But until IE 5.0 commands the lion's share of the Web browser market--and it very well may someday--I'll be sticking to more universal standards for commercial Web development. From the user's perspective, however, you can't go wrong with IE 5.0. It's everything IE 4.0 is with more of the good stuff and less of the bad.